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The Reflection Connection

Making Writing Reflection Meaningful for Students

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement






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All teachers want students to reflect on their challenges, strengths, and progress. Since writing can be so deeply personal, it often lends itself to these moments of self-reflection that help to inform awareness and future goals. Many teachers ask students to look back over their writing from a course or school year, but there are risk factors that can undermine the impact of these kinds of activities. In an effort to understand those factors and what teachers might do to avoid them, student perspectives provide some insight.

Risk #1: Too Abstract

Brandon, 15, a high school student in Delaware, explains, “My English teachers always make us write a journal or something about our writing at the end of year. I never know what to write about, and I don’t think anyone ever looks at it. I write the same things every year.”

With adolescent and young adult brains still forming, “reflection” can feel too abstract for many. Try providing options for specific areas to consider or identifying goals/strategies that they might use along with evidence from their writing and a rationale for their choice. For example, if you used a common rubric or set of feedback, supply those materials to help jump-start student thinking. It might also help to make the activity specific to and relevant for the course. If the course focused on a particular writing genre or if there is a skill or concept that is critical to student writing in the future, those might be significant areas. These kinds of filters can help students hone in on key areas for reflection.

Pro Tip: Providing choice can be important in making the task resonate with individual students who have trouble easily identifying strengths or weaknesses. Give students a choice for focus areas: “Choose one of the following areas as a focus for your reflection: a strength, a challenge, or a missed opportunity for improvement.”

Risk #2: Getting Beyond Grades

Sabrina, 18, a freshman at Stevenson University in Maryland explains, “I think if I was asked to reflect on my writing it would be helpful to think about where I started and where I ended up. And I think it would help me better myself in the future because I would be considering what things I didn’t improve on and how I could do so.”

Students will sometimes focus on their grades or scores, especially if they haven’t internalized the teacher’s feedback or the revision process. Push students to consider specific feedback from the teacher or their peers and incorporate time for students to analyze their previous work, the feedback they’ve received, and any patterns across their body of writing. A list of guiding questions will help some students even more. Is there an area where you have received feedback over more than one assignment? Have you seen a specific comment show up on more than one assignment or from more than one reviewer? This will help students prioritize areas for growth.

Risk #3: "It’s the end of the year, and what is the point?"

Cassie, 19, a freshman at the University of Alaska, Anchorage explains, “I think it is valuable to think about how have grown and areas you still need to work on. This reflection does help when you enter a new class; you can return to this writing and remember what you wanted to work on.”

When temperatures climb and the end is in sight, motivating students is difficult. If students don’t see value in a task, it can be even more difficult to engage them. One strategy for overcoming this challenge is to make it more tangible. To do this, consider establishing an authentic audience for their reflections. Obviously, their own reflection is important; however, a real, specific audience can help to lend even more structure and meaning to the activity. Perhaps you ask students to write a letter to their next teacher, asking for specific help or support with a goal they have based on their writing issues. If it’s possible to contact the next year’s teacher and ask them to use these with students or simply acknowledge the students’ reflections, it will add even more significance to the work.

Another option is to have students focus on an area where they saw progress and want to showcase their success. If the next teacher isn’t an option, ask students to write a letter to a parent, mentor, or friend explaining what they worked on and the growth they experienced. Alternatively, they could explain something they plan to work on in the future and map out an action plan for attacking the problem.

Risk #4: Fear of the Blank Page

For some, reflecting comes very naturally. However, students may not have the skills or experiences to feel comfortable with tackling reflection. To help build the necessary thought process, consider providing a sample of your own approach to self-reflection; this will provide students with a writing model, as well as a cognitive model for engaging in reflection. For additional scaffolding, it might be valuable to have the class annotate the writing sample together. “Here’s where I explain the pattern I noticed in my teacher’s comments” or “This is an example of a specific action to improve my weakness.” Annotating provides a great model for students and helps them overcome the daunting nature of a blank page. Here’s a sample that you could use in case you’re short on time:

Sample Teacher Writing Reflection

When I was in 8th grade, my teacher kept writing “show don’t tell” on my papers. After a couple assignments, I noticed the pattern, but I didn’t know what she meant or how to fix it. In my next writing conference, I decided to ask for help. Mrs. Gray explained that there were places where I was being a little wordy or not using specific enough word choices to clearly form a mental picture for my readers. She even gave me a couple examples. For our next assignment, I compared her examples to my own writing and made a lot of revisions. Then, just to be sure, I asked my best friend to read it too, and she spotted a couple more places where I could be more specific and even include dialogue instead of explaining what happened. Sure enough, when I turned that paper in, Mrs. Gray made a point to tell me that she noticed that extra effort and that it had paid off.

At the end of the year or course, many demands are competing for the remaining time. If reflection doesn’t feel valuable or the risks become too difficult to manage, it may seem like an easy thing to cut. However, what students reveal is that when structured properly, this kind of thinking is, indeed, useful, both in the present and for the future.